Lessons from Super Bowl Legends Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on Teamwork and Leadership

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

There are a lot of reasons you might hate (or love) the New England Patriots.

But, for most, one reason stands above all else…

They just. keep. winning.

Maybe they're your team and one of your life's great goals is to take a pilgrimage to Gillette Stadium before you die:

giphy Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Then again, if you're like many football fans, maybe they're your bane (why can't they just get out of the way and give someone else a chance at the Lombardi?). Or, you might have no particular opinion about them or football in general.

No matter where you fall, though, one can't help but stand in awe at the incredible record the team has accomplished. Playing at the highest level in one of the most competitive sports on the planet, over the past 19 years, the Patriots have amassed:

  • 10 Consecutive division titles
  • 8 Consecutive Conference Championship appearances
  • 11 Total Super Bowl appearances
  • 6 Super Bowl wins, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for most all-time

Football is as much, if not more of, a team sport as any out there.

However, without a doubt 2 people are more responsible for the Patriots success than any others: head coach Bill Belichick and star quarterback Tom Brady.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick - USA Today

4 lessons from Super Bowl legends Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on teamwork and leadership

Love them or hate them, their unparalleled run isn't the result of luck or even talent.

Sure, Belichick and the Patriots front office are known for being masters at making the most of the NFL's salary cap system, finding quality talent even when they're last in the draft.

But it's soft skills such as character, teamwork, and leadership that have really guided Belichick and Brady's Patriots to such great heights.

Here are 4 lessons from Super Bowl legends Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on teamwork and leadership.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick leadership lessons

1. Invest in character

When you need to fill a position, you look for the most qualified person. It's a natural part of the hiring process.

However, Belichick makes a case for prioritizing character and other soft skills on the same level as, or even above, talent or hard skills.

As the story goes, leading up to the 2000 NFL draft, Belichick and the New England Patriots were looking for a new quarterback.

But they didn't look for, ”a tall, lanky quarterback that ran a 5.3 [time in the] 40 [yard dash]," as former Patriots staffer Jason Licht said in a 2014 press conference. Instead, Belichick, Licht, and the team bet on personal integrity, prioritizing a quarterback with mental toughness and character.

To that end, they picked up a sixth-round draft pick (199th pick overall) out of the University of Michigan who wasn't on anyone's radar. His name was Tom Brady.

But it took Brady several years before he developed into the star quarterback we now know.

"He's earned everything that he's achieved," said Belichick in an interview with CNBC's Suzy Welch. "It wasn't always there. He's not a great natural athlete."

Invest in your most dependable people

Brady taught Belichick an important lesson about managing and developing his players: it's not all about talent.

As he puts it, "it's about dependability, consistency, and being able to improve.”

"On a personal level, the one thing that I've definitely learned is you've got to count on your most dependable people," Belichick told Welch. He says he's learned that if he puts his trust in the wrong guy, it's his fault if the team loses.

Brady taught Belichick that integrity, dependability, and character can overcome a perceived lack of talent any day:

"It might not be your most talented person, but you count on your most dependable people,

There have been times when I've put let's say too much responsibility on people that weren't dependable and they didn't come through. And so whose fault's that? Mine."

Leadership lesson: In addition to having the right skills, look for dependability, integrity, and overall character in people you hire. That way, you don't just get potential, but actual results you and your team can count on.  A jerk may be able to produce, but if the rest of the team suffers, you won't win.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick leadership lessons

2. Build strong relationships with your team

It's impossible to separate your personal life from your professional one completely. What affects us personally will eventually bleed over into our professional life, affecting our performance in countless ways.

"There are a lot of things that affect what happens on the field that occur off the field,” Belichick told CNBC.

Players have spouses, kids, and personal obligations and all of these things run together. "The more you and the organization can help take care of personal situations, the smoother the ship runs on the football end,” he says.

Belichick says that as a leader you need to understand that your teammates have messy, 3-dimensional lives. And it's impossible to completely separate the personal from professional.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick leadership and teamwork

Show your team that you care

No one understands this better than Tom Brady, who has a busy life of his own outside football with a wife, family, TB12 training program, and more.

Brady is known for being an even better human being than he is a football player. He always goes out of his way to reach out and be there when teammates are in need.

Brady once visited Charlie Weis, former offensive coordinator for the Patriots, and his family for the weekend while he was receiving bypass surgery.

And, when current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel temporarily got a new job as head coach of the Denver Broncos, Brady sent he and his family a heartfelt message saying he'd be rooting for them.

"He's a very down-to-earth guy, easy to talk to,” Patriot defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. told The Washington Post. "That's what makes him so likable and lovable on the team, how he builds team chemistry amongst everybody on the team, through just talking, just interacting.”

Brady is known for being intense on the field. However, he's also lauded by his teammates as a caring and supportive team leader. He understands how important it is to be there for your team not only professionally but also personally, so they'll be there for you on the field when it counts.

Leadership lesson: There are a lot of factors that affect a team member's performance. Some of those are personal. Build a strong relationship with your team members and show them that you care to maximize their performance and improve retention. When you care about them, they care about you and your business's needs, too.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick leadership lessons

3. Set a high standard for the rest of your team to follow

Just because your top performers are great doesn't mean you should stop pushing them to get even better.

By continuously pushing your top performers in public, you can send the rest of your team a clear message: We all need to do better.

Former Patriots wide receiver Chad Johnson told CNBC about his first day with the team back in 2011. He compared coach Belichick to the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

giphy Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

That practice, Belichick started by grilling star quarterback and team captain, Tom Brady.

Brady, who had already long cemented his place in the Hall of Fame by that time, was criticized for his bad performance that past season in front of the entire team. Belichick cited it as the reason for the team's exit early in the previous season.

Demand the best from your people

Brady went from nobody to NFL star to Hollywood elite after a few short years of success, amassing several Super Bowl wins and a supermodel wife in the process.

By 2009, Brady was spending a lot of time in the limelight with wife and former Victoria Secret model Gisele Bundchen.

However, over his next 2 seasons, it was obvious that the shift in lifestyle was affecting him. His performance began to fall off. During that time, the team failed to win a single playoff game.

Becoming worried that his star quarterback and team leader was losing his focus, Belichick had a talk with Brady and gave him an ultimatum: get focused again, or get out.

From that point forward, the Patriots went 11-15 in the playoffs, winning countless conference championships and 3 more Super Bowls along the way. And Brady himself won Super Bowl and league MVP twice each.

Build a great team, not a collection of star players

Belichick doesn't just push his star quarterback. He's known for being fair but incredibly demanding on everyone, setting a high standard for each and every person in the organization.

As he told ESPN at the "Sports Medicine and the NFL: The Playbook for 2013” event at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston:

"I believe to have a championship team you want to have a championship team in every area, whether that's your starting quarterback, your strength coach, your medical staff, your area scouts, whatever it happens to be.

We're trying to work at a championship level of performance in every one of those areas."

This demand for excellence ensures a high standard for everyone. No one wants to let anyone else down, and everyone knows the standard. As the team is known for saying, "Do your job."

Leadership lesson: By setting the bar high for your entire team, you make continuous improvement a part of your culture. This allows you to get the best from everyone, whether it's your sales or marketing department, managers, or your product team.

Expect the best from everyone, and help coach them to get there.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick leadership and teamwork - ken-blanchard-feedback-is-breakfast-of-champions

4. Great leaders know how to accept feedback from their team without becoming defensive

After 19 years and a level of success that rivals any sports dynasty in history, Bill Belichick still remains open to feedback. He was listening, even during the biggest game of the season.

It was Super Bowl LIII. With just 72 seconds left in the game, the Patriots were up 10-3 and they were still 42 yards away from the end zone against one of the best defensive teams in the league.

On one hand, a first down could help run precious time off, and potentially set up the game clinching score. If the Patriots went for it on 4th down and missed, the Rams could tie the game to force overtime with a single score.

Belichick stood calculating his options when Brady suggested, "Just kick a field goal.” Belichick checked with his coaching staff as Brady followed up with, "40-yarder, game is over.”

Brady knew the Rams hadn't been able to score all night. So, instead of banking on the Patriots' ability to score again on a great defense, they would put the pressure on the Rams offense.

Belichick took the advice and the team kicked the field goal. With the pressure on the Rams to score twice in the final seconds, they came up short, and the Patriots took their 6th Lombardi Trophy home in 19 years with a 13-3 victory.

After all his years of success, Belichick remained open to feedback from his team even in the final seconds of the biggest game of the season.  He exemplified great leadership by listening, and showed the value of teamwork with how he and Brady were able to communicate openly in a high stress situation.

tom brady and bill belichick leadership lessons

Listen to your team when they come to you with feedback.

It's common to see leaders become defensive when receiving feedback from their team. Especially after a little bit of success, criticism can feel unwelcome.

But it's a mistake to think that way. The day you think you're done learning is the day you stop growing. And continued growth is necessary for continued success.

According to Rachel Green of The Emotional Intelligence Institute in Western Australia, "Being able to hear feedback without becoming defensive is an essential skill for a leader.”

She says many leaders are too defensive to receive feedback or suggestions from their team. Unfortunately, the cost of that defensiveness is high for your team as it:

  • Reduces trust
  • Causes blocks in communication, and
  • Leaves employees feeling frustrated and ignored.

When you don't listen, your team will keep that feedback, and other good ideas to themselves. You'll miss out on good insights that can help your team perform at a high level, and risk them disengaging from their work in frustration.

Leadership lesson: Remain open to feedback, including feedback and criticism from those on your own team. Continuous growth breeds success.

Learning to receive feedback well is an important skill for any leader. We deep dive how you can get more feedback from your team here.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick  leadership lessons

Great teams have great habits.

The New England Patriots have given the world one of the greatest runs in modern sports history.

This success was the result of much more than talent, good front-office management, and luck. It was the intangibles– soft skills– that made the difference:

  • A pair of caring, humble leaders who demanded the best from their team
  • The pursuit of character above all else
  • Never resting on their laurels and sticking to a long-term vision

No one knows when the Patriots reign will end, but as long as Brady and Belichick continue to work together like they have to date, the sky is the limit for their success.

You can do the same with your team if you focus on these same critical values and habits.

For more leadership lessons from some of the greatest sports teams and coaches, check out some of our other posts:

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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